Nestled between the rolling green hills of the beautiful South Coast town of Gerringong, and the pounding surf of Werri Beach, sits the Mercure Gerringong Resort where our Country Weekend, exploring Dickens on Holidays took place over the weekend, 10-12 March, 2017.
Friday’s registration – aided by the welcoming smiles of Catherine Barker and Gary Corkill – saw the arrival of around 60 attendees, which included nine from Melbourne, three from Adelaide, two from Canberra and the remainder from NSW, not all of whom were Dickens Society members.
Following dinner we adjourned to the East Terrace Room where President Louise Owens officially welcomed us all and the Rev Geoffrey Usher gave the Acknowledgement of Country for the local Indigenous Wadi Wadi People.
Jo Henwood then gave her presentation on Dickens four part novella for children A Holiday Romance, complete with images, bringing it all to life in her inimitable style.
Before calling it a night we enjoyed a Quiz hosted by Susannah Fullerton. The mood had most definitely been set for an interesting, fun and enjoyable Country Weekend!
After such a great start, a full house of eager participants arrived for Saturday’s sessions as our first speaker Susannah Fullerton presented a talk on Charles Dickens in Italy telling us that the author made two visits to that country, the first with his wife and family, the second with male friends. Susannah noted that Dickens loved Italy and until he died was dreaming of making another visit. Yet Italy is a setting for only one of his novels – Little Dorrit – when the Dorrit family spend time in Venice and Rome. Susannah showed us how Dickens himself reacted to Italy, its art, people, landscapes and politics, but also discussed the ways in which Italy is symbolically used in Little Dorrit.
Following morning tea, Dr Vasudha Chandra’s presentation Prescription for Mr Dickens: 1 holiday stat. (stat. from the Latin word statum, meaning immediately) gave us some interesting insights into the medicines given out in Dickens’ time to cure ailments, such as tuberculosis. Vasudha described different illnesses, including the ‘Pickwickian Syndrome’ and also discussed the health of Dickens himself, who may have suffered from ‘Post Traumatic Stress Disorder’ following the terrible Staplehurst train crash he experienced in 1865.
Lunch was in the Bella Char Restaurant, while those preferring Al fresco dining chose the Garden Terrace which was was bathed in sunshine.
After lunch Catherine Barker OAM gave a talk entitled Victorian Holidays at the Seaside. Catherine gave us a wonderful picture of just what Victorians liked to do on their holidays, describing how the concept of the holiday evolved over the 19th century. She highlighted the fact that so many of the things we enjoy at the seaside today, such as eating ice cream cones, playing with buckets and spades on the beach and walking along piers, originated during the Victorian era and how the coming of the railways saw the start of the ‘day tripper’.
Catherine’s presentation was followed by a Panel Discussion – chaired by President Louise Owens – with guest speakers Dr Alan Dilnot, Susannah Fullerton, Dr Vasudha Chandra and Jo Henwood for an informal discussion about holidays. Some of the topics covered were the speakers’ particular interest in Dickens, other places that Dickens would have loved to holiday and which of Dickens’ holidays sounded the most relaxing. Alan Dilnot’s comment “you need to have absorbing activity in order to have meaningful relaxation” was an insightful comment about holidays which especially related to Dickens.
We then heard Alan Dilnot’s talk Dickens at the Seaside. Quoting first of all from references to the seaside by Tobias Smollett, Jane Austen and Emily Bronte, Alan went on to examine comparable passages in Dickens’ novels, showing that there was a steady movement from showing the seaside as a place for health and romance to presenting it as a setting for bitter recrimination. Alan made reference to the fact that he himself hails from Kent so is very familiar with those resorts such as Broadstairs, Margate and Ramsgate along the Thames estuary which Dickens knew so well and of which he was so fond.
With some free time before dinner many chose to work on the Charles Dickens & His Novels jigsaw puzzle, buy raffle tickets and items from The Old Curiosity Shop, work on guessing the characters in Dickens’ Dream as well as trying to answer the 44 question quiz from our last year’s Book of the Year, The Mystery of Edwin Drood.
Saturday night’s dinner – serenaded by a Jazz Band – proved to be an extremely social evening, with a beautiful meal and lots of Dickensian fellowship. .
Dinner over it was back to the East Terrace Room for the auction of an opal necklace, donated by one of our members as a fundraiser. With four main bidders, the winning bid was finally placed by Dr Mark Burns whose wife Anne wore the necklace the following day for us all to admire.
There were two more talks on Sunday morning, the first given by Gary Corkill on Dickens in America: A working Holiday. Gary’s talk related to the trip to America in 1842 which Charles and Catherine Dickens did. He spoke about the many places they visited; the people they met and some of the harrowing journeys they made which took over six months, travelling 3,000 miles. Gary examined Dickens obsession with changing the copyright laws, efforts that caused him considerable criticism, and his deep hatred of slavery. When they returned to England Dickens wrote American Notes and later Martin Chuzzlewit, both books which contained unfavourable comments about aspects of American culture.
The final talk was given by Michelle Cavanagh who spoke on Dickens and Punch & Judy tracing the history of Punch & Judy, from its roots in the 16th century Italian character of Pulcinella, part of the Comedia Dell’Arte, to the present day. Noting that Charles Dickens and Mr Punch – whose arrival in London in May 1662 was recorded in Pepys diary – were both immensely popular in the mid to late 1880’s. Michelle drew parallels between Daniel Quilp in The Old Curiosity Shop with Mr Punch. Moving on to the later appearance of Punch & Judy shows at the seaside, which began in the Victorian era, Michelle finished her talk by asking everyone to join her in singing a chorus of Oh I Do Like To Be Beside The Seaside the words of which many of those present knew.
Following all the talks over the weekend, Brigitte Lucey gave the thanks to our speakers, together with a presentation of a bottle of champagne.
The drawing of the raffle, announcement of the winner of the Dickens’ Dream competition and the winner of the The Mystery of Edwin Drood self-marker quiz plus admiration of the finished Charles Dickens & His Novels jigsaw puzzle, occurred before President Louise Owens thanked everyone for their attendance and input, reminding us all that our next major event will be the International Dickens Conference – Boz in Oz: Charles Dickens’ Colonial Connections to be held in Sydney, 25th-30th October 2018. All that remained was for us to express our thanks to Louise herself.
But before we said our final goodbyes and headed back to our various homes – Melbourne, Adelaide, Canberra, Wollongong, Kiama and Sydney – it was time for a group photo. What a Dickens of a Country Weekend this has been!